“Like pygmies we fight with cranes” – Henry David Thoreau
Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “War does not determine who is right, only who is left”. Historically, humanity (perhaps the name is meant ironically) has a talent for wiping out stunning percentages of our own species. Some 50 million people were killed in World War II (roughly 2% of the world population), but don’t attribute this to the increased effectiveness of our weapons of war. The Mongol Conquests in Asia from 1206-1368 A.D. erased some 70 million people from the face of the earth (17% of the people on the planet at the time), it just took a little longer. Entire cultures are routinely decimated; 6 million murdered in the Holocaust; 8 million starved to death by Stalin in the Ukraine between 1932-1933; countless millions of indigenous peoples killed through war, displacement, and disease during the European colonization of the Americas; Cambodia, Rwanda, Armenia, Bangladesh, and the list goes on. We are creatures of eternal and frequently apocalyptically fatal conflict. Every once in a while, some enlightened guy comes along and suggests this is not the optimum state of affairs, but we usually assassinate them pretty quickly. You don’t want that kind of liberal claptrap getting spread around. Our ability to envision murder on a grand scale is impressive, albeit disturbing and self-destructive. Unsurprisingly, our mythological monstrosities are not morally superior in this respect, and perhaps this is why we never learn, and in fact, endeavor to forget the lessons our myths are trying to convey to us. According to records from the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Norse, the Arabs, and the Cherokee, we have a vague cross-cultural recollection of a millennium long and globe-spanning Pygmy-Crane War, resulting in the ascendancy of the crane and the obliteration of the Pygmy, from which we have clearly learned nothing, or rather we’ve learned that there are no more pygmies, and that exceptionally effective pro-crane propaganda has led to our association of cranes with peace, serenity, and good fortune, proving once again that it is the victor, not the victim that writes history. We have forgotten the horrors of the ancient Pygmy-Crane War.
Homer’s Iliad (dated to 760-710 B.C.), one of the oldest extant works of Western literature mentions the terrible war between the Pygmaei and the cranes, going so far as to compare the bloody battles of the Greeks and Trojans with the ferocity of the ageless conflict between pygmy and crane.
Thus by their leader’s care each martial band
Moves into ranks, and stretches o’er the land.
With shouts the Trojans rushing from afar,
Proclaim their motions, and provoke the war:
So when inclement winters vex the plain
With piercing frosts, or thick descending rain,
To warmer seas the cranes embodied fly,
With noise, and order, through the midway sky:
To pigmy nations wounds and death they bring,
And all the war descends upon the wing.
But silent, breathing rage, resolved and skilled
By mutual aids to fix a doubtful field (Homer, The Iliad, Bk 3:5)
The origins of the Pygmy-Crane conflict are shrouded by the mists of time, although classical writers have suggested two plausible explanations for the outbreak of hostilities. A race of tiny men that the Greeks called Pygmaei (from the Greek pygmê, “length of the forearm” – the name has long since been generically applied to all tribes of men with a diminutive stature, particularly in Africa) are said to have originally dwelled in Scythia (Central Eurasia) near the Thracian coast of the Black Sea. Artwork adorning 2nd Century B.C. tombs in the Crimean peninsula of the Ukraine depict battles between pygmies and herons (morphologically similar to cranes), and Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) noted that the Pygmaei were believed to have been displaced from their ancestral homeland by the unrelenting onslaught of an overwhelming force of cranes.
“This whole region [the Black Sea coast of Thrace] was occupied by the Scythian tribe called the Ploughmen, their towns being . . . And Gerania, stated to have been the abode of the race of Pygmaei (Pygmies): their name in the local dialect used to be Catizi, and there is a belief that they were driven away by cranes (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 4:44).
An earlier attestation to the malign intent of the cranes with regards to the Pygmaei can be found in the ancient Greek fables of Aesop (620-564 B.C.), which suggests, that just as successive waves of human barbarians displaced each other as stronger tribes swept them forward from Europe and Asia, the cranes found an unfriendly and inhospitable environment in Greece, and spread out looking for elbow room, settling on the lands of the unfortunate Pygmaei.
“There were some cranes who came to nibble at a field which a farmer had recently sown with wheat . . . The farmer . . . began throwing rocks at the cranes, crippling a good many of them. As the cranes abandoned the field they cried to one another, ‘Let’s run away to the land of the Pygmaioi!’” (Aesop’s Fables).
Other authors, particularly ancient Greek grammarian Antoninus Liberalis (alive somewhere around 100 A.D.) suggested that the Greek gods engineered the conflict as punishment against an immodest and inadequately respectful queen of the Pygmaei. Those Greek gods were an unpleasant bunch of egomaniacs with a nasty predilection for meting out punishments far out of proportion to the seriousness of a given offense.
Among the people we call Pygmaioi (Pygmies) there was born a girl called Oinoe (Oenoe) who was of flawless beauty but she was graceless by nature and overweening. She cared not a rap for Artemis and Hera. She was married to one of the citizens, Nikodamos (Nicodamus), a good and sensible man, and gave birth to a child called Mopsos. And all the Pygmaioi, who loved to show kindliness, brought her many gifts to celebrate the birth of the child. But Hera found fault with Oinoe for not honouring her and turned her into a crane, elongated her neck, ordained that she should be a bird that flew high. She also caused war to arise between her and the Pygmaioi. Yearning for her child Mopsos, Oinoe flew over houses and would not go away. But all the Pygmaioi armed themselves and chased her away. Because of this there arose a state of war then as well as now between the Pygmaioi and the cranes (Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 16).
At this point, the Pygmaei, fractured and reduced to refugee status went into exile, and it appears that small clusters settled in Egypt, Ethiopia, Arctic Canada, and the Himalayas in an attempt to flee from the unstoppable cranes, who seemed determined to genocidally pursue them to the ends of the earth and enact their own “Final Solution to the Pygmaei Problem”. Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) noted the presence of the Cranes in Scythia, as well as their continued destructive raids of Pygmaei refugee settlements in southern Egypt.
The cranes do this, for they travel from Scythia to the marshes in the higher parts of Egypt, from which the Nile originates. This is the place where the Pygmies dwell; and this is no fable, for there is really, as it is said, a race of dwarfs, both men and horses, which lead the life of troglodites (Aristotle, History of Animals, Book 8:2).
Despite the Pygmaei exodus from their original Scythian abode, the conflict between pygmy and crane appears to have taken on a global character. Arab scholars and 14th Century A.D. Italian missionary and explorer Friar Odric agree upon tales told in China about remnant populations of Pygmaei struggling to survive against the continued predations of angry cranes in the Himalayas. Chinese annals record similar accounts. The 5th Century Chinese religious text the Shen I King, states that, “In the region of Sihai is the land of the cranes where men and women are only seven inches tall. The only creatures they fear are cranes which come here from the sea. The cranes which in one single flight travel a thousand miles can gobble them up”. Additionally, Renaissance maps seem to give some hints that populations of Pygmaei dispersed to the north (in Scandinavia – the Skaerling) and the Canadian Arctic. John J. Mckay, in a comment appended to an article “Did the Norse Find Pygmies in the Arctic?” while conducting research about the White Elephant of Rucheni for Scientific American noted, “When researching Renaissance map imagery last year for another article I came across several maps with little vignettes of the war between the Pygmies and the cranes set in Arctic Canada”. Everywhere the Pygmaei tried to find a safe haven from the merciless cranes, they seem to have found no relief, and while artistic depictions from ancient Greece to the Renaissance show the pygmies taking up arms to bring the fight to the cranes, ultimately they were greatly outnumbered by those prolific cranes, disadvantaged by a lack of ability to project air power, and thus doomed to a fighting retreat and eventual destruction.
We cannot tell how Odoric got hold of this story; there is a combination of authorities to place pygmies in the inland west of China We may cite two of these–Reinaud’s Arab says that in the mountains of China there is a town called Tdyu whose inhabitants are pygmies, but the story most in point is contained in a rubric of the Catalan world map (1375). To the NW of Catayo near Himalayas it represents a combat of pygmies and cranes with an inset that runs thus “Here grow little men who have but five palms length and though they be little and not fit for weighty matters yet they are brave and clever at weaving and at keeping cattle And know ye these men have children when they be but twelve years old and live commonly to but forty years and have not a proper age, valiantly they defend themselves from the cranes and take and eat, And here endeth the land of Catay” (Yule, 1913, p122).
Pliny the Elder locates a remaining population of Pygmaei somewhere between Egypt and Ethiopia, but notes the ongoing conflict with the cranes, emphasizing the desperate and morally questionable Pygmaei strategy of getting to the crane’s eggs before they could hatch another generation of winged super-soldiers. Also we see the world’s first introduction of ovine (goat and sheep based) cavalry.
Beyond these in the most outlying mountain region we are told of the Three-span men and Pygmies, who do not exceed three spans, i.e. twenty-seven inches, in height; the climate is healthy and always spring-like, as it is protected on the north by a range of mountains; this tribe Homer has also recorded as being beset by cranes. It is reported that in springtime their entire band, mounted on the backs of rams and she-goats and armed with arrows, goes in a body down to the sea and eats the cranes’ eggs and chickens, and that this outing occupies three months; and that otherwise they could not protect themselves against the flocks of cranes that would grow up; and that their houses are made of mud and feathers and egg-shells. Aristotle says that the Pygmies live in caves, but in the rest of his statement about them he agrees with the other authorities (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7:23-30)
Pygmaei seem to have found refuge as far afield as the Southeast of the North American continent, where they still found no peace from the attacks of the cranes, who appeared to have formed some sort of inter-species military alliance with local geese populations, and seemed bound and determined to wipe the Pygmaei from the face of the Earth. Cherokee legends (with a few references in the folktales of other Native American tribes) clearly cite a peculiar and tragic story of the end of Pygmaei civilization in the Americas, and in fact, may reflect the last stand of the Pygmaei.
The Cherokees, for example, whose ancestral home was in the southeast of the USA, have a legend which tells of a journey by some young men of the tribe who wished to see the world. They traveled south until they came upon a tribe of very little people, the Tsundige’wi, who had strangely shaped bodies and barely reached up to a man’s knee. These little men lived in nests in the sand that were covered with dry grass, and they were terrified of wild geese that came in great flocks from the south and attacked them. When the Cherokees arrived, the Tsundige’wi were in a state of great anxiety, because the wind was blowing from the south, bringing with it some white feathers, and this was a sure sign that the birds were not for away. The Cherokees asked why they did not defend themselves against the birds, but the dwarfs said they had no weapons. The Cherokees did not have time to make bows and arrows for them, but they did show them how to use sticks and clubs so that they could hit the birds on their necks and kill them. The birds flew in from the south in great flocks and the little men ran to their nests to hide. But when the birds stuck their long beaks into the nests and began to pull the men out to eat them, the men dashed out with their clubs and hit the birds as the Cherokees had shown them. They killed so many that after a while the birds flew away. For some time the Tsundige’wi were able to keep the birds at bay, until eventually a flock of sandhill cranes arrived. These birds were much taller, and the little men weren’t able to strike them on the neck, and so unfortunately for the Tsundige’wi, they all perished (Tate, 2011).
Cranes may be beautiful, nay even elegant, but they are some seriously bad-ass birds that don’t have much of a problem taking on full-sized humans, let alone the somewhat less lofty Pygmaei, exemplified in a story related by Charles Eastman. Every once in a while, their veneer of serenity slips. Next time Greenpeace knocks on your door looking for contributions to save the cranes, ask them about the Pygmy genocide and if they advocate bringing cranes before a war crimes tribunal. They won’t come back.
Of course, we were delighted with our good luck. But, as it was already midsummer, the young cranes—two in number—were rather large and they were a little way from the nest; we also observed that the two old cranes were in a swampy place nearby; but, as it was moulting-time, we did not suppose that they would venture on dry land. So we proceeded to chase the young birds; but they were fleet runners and it took us some time to come up with them. Meanwhile, the parent birds had heard the cries of their little ones and come to their rescue. They were chasing us, while we followed the birds. It was really a perilous encounter! Our strong bows finally gained the victory in a hand-to-hand struggle with the angry cranes; but after that we hardly ever hunted a crane’s nest. Almost all birds make some resistance when their eggs or young are taken, but they will seldom attack man fearlessly (Eastman, 1902, p90).
Are very nearly universal stories of the war between the pygmies and cranes a metaphorical memory of a worldwide conflict predating the ancient civilizations that referenced them? Did monster cranes wipe out “the little people” immortalized in myths of countless cultures? We still see plenty of cranes flying about. Not so many pygmies. Winston Churchill may have gotten his timeline wrong in remarking, “When the war of the giants is over the wars of the pygmies will begin”, because in point of fact, by the time the wars of the pygmies ended, the wars of the giants had only just begun.
Antoninus Liberalis. The Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis (trans. Francis Celoria). New York: Routledge, 1992.
Aristotle. Aristotle’s History of Animals: In Ten Books. London: G. Bell, 1878.
Eastman, Charles Alexander, 1858-1939. Indian Boyhood. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1902.
Homer. Homer (trans. Alexander Pope). New York: Harper & Bros, 1836.
Pliny, the Elder. Natural History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938.
Tate, Peter. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Random House, 2011.
Yule, Henry, Sir, 1820-1889. Cathay And the Way Thither: Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China,. New ed., London: Printed for the Hakluyt society, 1913